Monday, September 23, 2013

Animation Block Party - Festival Review

The United States has long been in need of a professional, internationally-minded animation festival. What better potential to fill this role could a festival have, than being located in one of the most accessible and international cities in the US, New York? The Animation Block Party is, according to its website, “the premier animation festival on the East Coast”. It’s also the only animation festival on the East Coast, and while there were some very enjoyable moments to my visit this past July, I can’t in good faith recommend any animator that isn’t local to spend the effort and money to attend.

The festival is centered in one of the creative hotbeds of animation, Brooklyn, NY, where many independent artists, designers, and fashion-conscious hipsters call home. From the bit of festival history I knew and the programmer’s choices, I gathered that the festival was a bit “bootstrappy”, with a crew of volunteers and a hearty focus on their local crowd. All this could have the makings of a vibrant, small festival. However, there were a couple red flags. One was the somewhat hasty and impersonal nature of the correspondence surrounding my festival acceptance and attendance. Emails lacked critical details, like the addresses of festival venues, which made figuring out how to get around unfamiliar Brooklyn a bit of a headache. No help with finding accommodation was offered, which made me think that the festival really didn’t expect out-of-town visitors to bother. Also, I found out that some of the established movers-and-shakers of the NY animation scene, like Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane and Amid Amidi*, don’t bother to support the festival with their attendance. But, since I like any excuse to visit to New York, I decided to go and see for myself.

The first serious criticism I have for ABP is that they do not offer filmmakers a festival pass. My film was in competition and the festival offered me 2 free tickets to my Saturday afternoon screening, which also included entry to the party that night. I was also invited to the special filmmakers meet-n-greet mimosa brunch. That all sounds very nice in writing, but the brunch consisted of Dunkin’ Donuts and mimosas at a trendy clothing store in Brooklyn. Oh, and the trendy clothing store happened to be having “Mimosa Saturday” at all their locations around the city that day. As I tried to avoid spilling my free mimosa on the neatly folded $30 T-shirts surrounding me, I couldn’t help feeling like we were a group of freeloading college students instead of professional filmmakers networking at a festival.

Back to the lack of a festival pass. I can understand that a festival has a budget, especially in a place like Brooklyn where venue fees must be killer. There were plenty of local films programmed in the festival, and maybe ABP was worried about lost revenue if they gave all these locals free passes. But the practical result of me not having a festival pass was that I didn’t actually go to the festival. I went to my screening and bought tickets to another screening for me and my guest. A few of the other screenings looked interesting, but for the two of us, the price tag quickly became too high.

There is nothing wrong with low-budget. I’ve been to grassroots film festivals. I’ve stayed in people’s homes, watched a DVD copy of my film crappy projectors in a school auditorium and thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of a small crowd of film-lovers. At those festivals I feel like everyone appreciates the creative work that goes into making a film and having a filmmaker present is a privilege. At ABP I felt like I was an expendable commodity. There was no Q and A or even a stand-up-and-bow for any of the attending filmmakers. I’m pretty sure the festival could’ve cared less that I was there.

Because I didn’t actually go to much of the festival, I can’t speak with authority on the quality of the films. The first night, an outdoor screening of shorts, was jointly sponsored by the incredibly popular Rooftop Films Summer screening series. The line-up was full of strong films, including some festival award winners like Dan Sousa’s Feral, and Ainslie Henderson's I Am Tom Moody. I also really enjoyed Kalte by Reda Bartkute and Passer, Passer by Louis Morton. I left the screening with high hopes that this trend of high-quality animation would continue. The second screening I attended disappointed me because about half the films lacked a sophisticated application of the principles of good motion. There seem to be many, many designers and artists who are getting into animation without fully understanding that is is the art of movement. Having a pretty design that moves is not the same as carefully choreographed and patiently executed movement. More and more often at festivals I feel like I am sitting through a series of glorified Powerpoint presentations.

However, what really shattered my experience of ABP was watching my own film at the festival. There is no better way to destroy a filmmakers spirit than to completely ruin her work of art before a public audience and make no apology.

How do I begin to explain how terrible the film looked? If you took a polaroid of a Picasso, then printed it in a newspaper and THEN blew that image up to a wall-sized print, that might come close to the degradation my film suffered. There were so many compression artifacts the credits were illegible.
How my sand fish felt after Animation Block Party

After the screening I cornered Casey, the festival director and asked him to explain what could possibly have gone wrong. He said they probably took the DVD submission copy of the film, recompressed it to a new format and then blew it up to DCP. What??? I asked him why the festival didn’t request an HD file from which to make the DCP. His response was, “Well, I think we sent an email out at some point and if we didn’t hear from you we just used the submission copy.” I went back and checked my ABP email thread and spam folder for that email and found nothing. I also asked every filmmaker I talked to that night, and none could recall such an email (and several were worried about what their films were going to look like since they had not sent in a replacement copy either). There was no follow-up, no cross checking and seemingly no one technically savvy enough to look at what was going up on the screen and realize it was sub-par. My film was not the only one that looked degraded and compressed.

Casey’s brief apology was hardly reassuring that something like this would not happen again, “Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Most people probably didn’t even notice.” After the festival, I tried to follow up with an email to him, in hopes of washing out the bad taste in my mouth (I really want to like ABP!), but received no response.

After the screening I was so steamed up that any thought of going to see another show was out of the question. My husband and I got a beer and late lunch, then walked to Prospect Park for the rest of the day. By the time the evening party rolled around, I had cooled off enough to want to talk to some of the other animators and compare experiences.

Adding a corpse flower to the communal drawing wall.
And  this, at least, lets me end on a positive note. Brooklyn does know how to construct a unique party, and the 10th Anniversary Party at the BAM Fischer had a casual throwback atmosphere reminiscent of a G-rated frat party. Carnival games, a 10ft long foosball table, 4-person Pacman, and a massive drawing wall were all clearly designed to bring strangers and friends together and break the ice. Someone must have run to Costco for the party food, which included, giant bowls of Doritos and Cheetos, chocolate covered pretzels and those irresistible brownie bites. The real ice-breakers were the bottomless mixed drinks by Brooklyn Gin and Brooklyn Brewery. One thing the festival did get right was their sponsors. There was a decent crowd and some decent conversations to be had. We didn’t stick around long enough to see if the DJ (or drinks) would eventually draw people to the dance floor. We were too eager to ride our CityBikes back to Williamsburg and hang out with some old friends.

In summary, perhaps my experience a ABP was just a fluke, but I will think twice not only about attending, but about sending them my films in the future. ABP is not anywhere near the premier animation festival our country needs. The animation industry in the US is so large and our geography is so expansive, is it unrealistic to hope for a gathering place where animators can intermingle professionally? We may not have the right culture to create an Annecy or an Ottawa within our borders, but I hope there is still room for defining our own quality forum for the independent voices of animators.

*CORRECTION Amid Amidi has expressed his support for the festival and its intentions, explaining his absence in the comments.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hana Sasaki Makes Her Debut

I'd like to announce an exciting animated collaboration with my friend and writer, Kelly Luce. Kelly and I met at the MacDowell Colony during the Great Ice Storm of '08. A week without power in rural New Hampshire lays a good foundation for friendship.

Kelly is releasing her debut collection of short stories this October and I have had the privilege of an open creative license to animate a few scenes from her book. This may result in future collaborations... a supernatural toaster is a tempting plot point. But for now, enjoy this glimpse into Ms. Luce's strange and wonderful mind.

Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail 

And please do your social media duty for us both with a like, comment, tweet, tumble, blog, embed or otherwise share.